Establishes Lee as a World-Class Director

Do the Right Thing, director Spike Lee’s third feature-length film, confronted the existence of racial tension in the United States and confirmed Lee’s reputation as a pioneering African American artist.

Summary of Event

When Do the Right Thing went into production, Spike Lee had already established himself as a provocative filmmaker. He had not, however, completed a project on the scale of Do the Right Thing, nor had he shed the label of “promising” young director. Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Spike Lee[Lee]
Do the Right Thing (film)
Motion pictures;Do the Right Thing
African Americans;motion-picture directors[motion picture directors]
[kw]Do the Right Thing Establishes Lee as a World-Class Director (June 30, 1989)
[kw]Lee as a World-Class Director, Do the Right Thing Establishes (June 30, 1989)
[kw]Director, Do the Right Thing Establishes Lee as a World-Class (June 30, 1989)
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Spike Lee[Lee]
Do the Right Thing (film)
Motion pictures;Do the Right Thing
African Americans;motion-picture directors[motion picture directors]
[g]North America;June 30, 1989: Do the Right Thing Establishes Lee as a World-Class Director[07310]
[g]United States;June 30, 1989: Do the Right Thing Establishes Lee as a World-Class Director[07310]
[c]Motion pictures and video;June 30, 1989: Do the Right Thing Establishes Lee as a World-Class Director[07310]
Lee, Spike
Dickerson, Ernest
Aiello, Danny

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1957, Lee was reared in Brooklyn, New York. He returned to Atlanta in 1975 to attend Morehouse College, as had his father and grandfather before him. At Morehouse, Lee met Monty Ross, who would become his longtime coproducer. Lee also wrote his first short film at Morehouse. Titled Black College: The Talented Tenth, Black College (film) it examined the minority of African Americans who had entered the American economic mainstream.

After graduating from Morehouse, Lee studied film at New York University (NYU), where he met Ernest Dickerson, who would become the director of photography for Lee’s feature films. Lee first attracted notice as a filmmaker while at NYU. After making such student projects as The Answer (1980), Answer, The (film) a provocative retort to the open racism of D. W. Griffith’s film classic The Birth of a Nation (1915), and Sarah (1981), Sarah (film) which focuses on a Harlem Thanksgiving Day celebration, Lee teamed up with Dickerson to complete Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983), Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop (film)[Joes Bed Stuy Barbershop] an hour-long film shot in color. Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop, which successfully portrays nuances of black conversation and culture, won a Student Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was shown on public television.

After Lee left NYU, his first attempts at making a feature film failed. He persisted, however, and began writing and raising funds for She’s Gotta Have It (1986). She’s Gotta Have It (film)[Shes Gotta Have It] Filmed in black and white for a modest $175,000, She’s Gotta Have It required Lee to make his first contacts with Hollywood film companies. A candid exploration of a black woman’s sexuality, the film was a critical and box-office success. It also established the character of Mars Blackmon (played by Lee himself), who would later appear in a popular series of television shoe advertisements made by Lee with basketball star Michael Jordan. Lee’s next film, School Daze (1988), School Daze (film) was shot in color and was completed for about $6 million; the size of the budget made it necessary for Lee to work with a major film company, Columbia Pictures. Although the film, an examination of life at a black college modeled on Morehouse, drew mixed reviews, it earned a profit.

Getting Do the Right Thing made constituted a major test for Lee. He arranged for his most substantial budget up to that time, $6.5 million, in a deal cut with Universal Pictures. The sum was less than Lee wanted and far less than some motion pictures received; Hollywood was not yet willing to take a major risk on Lee. Nevertheless, Lee was set to make an aggressive exploration of race relations in the United States.

Do the Right Thing revolves around a cast of characters that includes Sal (played by Danny Aiello) and his two sons (one of whom is a blatant racist), Italian American proprietors of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria; Mookie, played by Lee, who delivers pizzas for Sal; Buggin’ Out, the neighborhood radical; Smiley, an awkward, stuttering devotee of both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X; and Radio Raheem, a massive figure who traverses the neighborhood playing militant rap music on a huge portable cassette player.

The plot unfolds slowly. Buggin’ Out has had a conflict with Sal because the pizzeria’s “wall of fame” features only photographs of Italian Americans. Buggin’ Out believes that black people ought to be represented on the wall, given that nearly all of Sal’s customers are black. He tries to organize a boycott against Sal, but he meets with no success until he gets together with Radio Raheem, who has clashed with Sal over the volume of the music Raheem plays, and Smiley. As Sal is about to close the pizzeria for the day, he good-naturedly decides to remain open at the request of some tardy customers. Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem enter and demand action on the wall of fame. Driven to distraction by Raheem’s music, Sal begins to use racial epithets and then destroys Raheem’s cassette player.

With this first act of violence, the molehill of a dispute becomes a veritable mountain. Sal and his sons begin to fight with Radio Raheem and his friends, and the fight flows outside the store. Police officers arrive, and one pulls Radio Raheem off Sal by using a choke hold, which he releases only after Raheem is dead. The crowd is stunned and angry. The police leave with Raheem’s body, and the crowd begins to turn on Sal and his sons. Mookie grabs a garbage can and throws it through the pizzeria’s plate-glass window. The shop is gutted and burned by the crowd; Smiley puts pictures of his two heroes on the wall of fame just before it burns. The crowd then turns menacingly toward a store across the way but stops when the store’s Korean owner pleads that he, too, is “black.” The next morning, Mookie and Sal have a reconciliation of sorts, and the film closes with a display of dueling quotations: one from Martin Luther King, Jr., expounding on the futility of violence, and the other from Malcolm X, arguing that the use of violence in self-defense is justifiable and intelligent.

Do the Right Thing was both a critical and a commercial success. Lee created a compelling if somewhat surrealistic image of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood (where he filmed on location), and once again Ernest Dickerson’s cinematography was riveting. Lee also drew a strong acting performance from Danny Aiello as Sal. Aiello was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, as was Lee for the film’s screenplay. The film also made money, becoming Lee’s most profitable venture up to that point.

Lee was also the subject of criticism for Do the Right Thing, however. He was criticized for making his Bedford-Stuyvesant block appear more like a stage set than a real urban street with real urban characters, for the film’s absence of a clear story line, and for the contrived nature of the film’s climax. Critics pointed out that police would not likely leave such a violent crowd unsupervised. Added to these aesthetic critiques were allegations of social irresponsibility. Many observers asserted that Lee’s film was dangerous because it seemed to encourage inner-city African Americans to look for violent solutions to their problems. For his part, Lee referred to the film’s violent scenes as depicting an “uprising” rather than a riot.

Defenders of the film, including Lee himself, pointed out that Lee did not invent riots or the social conditions that fuel them. In addition, the film presents two sides of the issue: Malcolm X’s statement is counterbalanced by King’s. Moreover, it is not clear that the burning of Sal’s pizzeria is an act of self-defense (Malcolm X’s precondition for the intelligent use of violence). Buggin’ Out is portrayed as silly and boorish; his cause is made to appear trivial, and the violence he inspires ends up being pointless. The film makes this last point by focusing on an elderly black woman during the riot scene; at first, she cheers the crowd on, but she later cries when she sees the results of the crowd’s actions. The sympathetic treatment of Sal (partly a result of Aiello’s performance) also tempers Lee’s message. Finally, it is possible to see Mookie’s breaking of the restaurant’s window as an act of moderation, because it draws the crowd’s attention away from Sal and his sons and substitutes damage to property for violence against people.


Do the Right Thing confirmed Lee’s unique combination of artfulness and box-office appeal. It also made him a controversial figure on matters of race, bringing his talent and ideas to a broader audience. The film’s box-office and critical success had a major effect both on Lee’s own career and on the prospects for other African American filmmakers in Hollywood.

In the wake of his third straight box-office success, Lee gained the opportunity to direct Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Mo’ Better Blues (film)[Mo Better Blues] about a jazz musician who learns the value of human commitments; Jungle Fever (1991), Jungle Fever (film) which concerns interracial sexual relations; and the biographical Malcolm X (1992). Malcolm X (film) Although the first two of these films were successful, they earned Lee further criticism for his use of questionable plot structure and contrived conclusions.

With Malcolm X, Lee benefited from the powerful nature of his subject matter. Moreover, Lee was at last allowed a big Hollywood budget (about $35 million) to make a film on a theme many white Americans were likely to find threatening, and the result was an intense, well-focused film. Had Do the Right Thing not succeeded in establishing Lee’s credentials as a major voice on racial issues as well as his box-office appeal, Lee would likely not have had the opportunity to direct Malcolm X. Lee’s success created strong pressure on Warner Bros. to use a black director to tell the story of Malcolm X’s life.

The success of Do the Right Thing and Lee’s other films also opened doors for other young African American filmmakers, such as Matty Rich Rich, Matty (Straight Out of Brooklyn, 1991), Mario Van Peebles Van Peebles, Mario (New Jack City, 1991), and John Singleton Singleton, John (Boyz n the Hood, 1991). These filmmakers did not imitate Lee’s style, nor did they, by and large, show Lee’s thematic range. They did, however, begin exploring black themes for black audiences with independence and individuality, and their films attracted substantial white audiences as well.

Although modest about his influence on younger directors, Lee has noted that he sees himself as a pioneer; in his book By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X (1992), Lee likens himself to baseball star Jackie Robinson, whose uniform number Lee’s character wears in Do the Right Thing. Robinson was uniquely suited to the task of integrating professional baseball; Lee believes he was uniquely suited to the task of opening up Hollywood to a variety of black perspectives.

Lee has been a controversial figure, but his films and those of other young black directors have encouraged fresh thought about racial equality and racial harmony in the United States. Black audiences for such films have been drawn by the validation of their hopes and concerns; at the same time, white audiences have been challenged to respond to rather than ignore the feelings of black Americans. Most notable, perhaps, is the way in which such films have led white viewers to a greater understanding of the centrality of anger to the experience of black Americans.

Moreover, Lee demonstrated that appealing films could still be made without blockbuster budgets and special effects. He showed that artfulness and serious ideas are compatible with profitability, a lesson of value to directors and producers of any race. Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Spike Lee[Lee]
Do the Right Thing (film)
Motion pictures;Do the Right Thing
African Americans;motion-picture directors[motion picture directors]

Further Reading

  • Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1988. Provides information on the contributions to and frustrations of African Americans in the film and television industries. Sets Lee’s achievements in historical context by pointing out important predecessors. Also focuses on the dearth of film opportunities for African Americans, particularly in directorial roles, and discusses the limits of films in which black culture and perspectives are portrayed by white writers, directors, and producers.
  • Fuchs, Cynthia, ed. Spike Lee: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002. Chronologically ordered collection of interviews with the filmmaker conducted for various publications and television programs from 1986 to 2000. Shows the wide range of Lee’s work and clarifies his continuing concern with the topic of race in the United States. Includes index.
  • Kendall, Steven D. New Jack Cinema. Silver Springs, Md.: J. L. Denser, 1992. Provides a lively introduction to the growth of African American cinema in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Includes discussion of Lee as well as of younger directors who received a chance to make films aimed at African American audiences in the wake of Lee’s artistic and box-office success.
  • Lee, Spike, and Lisa Jones. “Do the Right Thing”: The New Spike Lee Joint. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. Provides background on the film’s genesis and production; one of several volumes Lee has published to accompany his films. Especially interesting is the book’s account of the filmmaker’s dealings with Bedford-Stuyvesant residents during the course of filming on location. Also discusses the difference of opinion between Lee and actor Danny Aiello over the film’s treatment of Sal as a character.
  • Lee, Spike, with Ralph Wiley. By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of “Malcolm X.” New York: Hyperion, 1992. In addition to providing an account of how Malcolm X was made, this work fits the film into the context of Lee’s previous work. Lee also seizes this opportunity to answer selected critics, including some who associated the 1992 Los Angeles riots with the influence of Do the Right Thing.
  • McMillan, Terry, et al. Five for Five: The Films of Spike Lee. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1991. Impressive volume features still photos by David Lee, Spike’s brother, covering Spike’s first five feature films (through Jungle Fever). Each film’s photos are preceded by an insightful and well-written analytic essay by a well-known African American scholar or critic; Nelson George writes on Do the Right Thing.
  • Reid, Mark A., ed. Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Collection of scholarly essays examines the film from several perspectives. Includes photographs, reviews of the film by well-known critics, select bibliography, and index.

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